The ongoing pandemic meant that 2021 was the first year in which I had the opportunity to attend the Sundance Film Festival. Well, virtually attend. As with the Buffalo, Toronto, New York, Chicago, and AFI festivals, Sundance shifted to a mix of virtual and in-person screenings. The results were extraordinary, with more than 500,000 views of the film program.
In terms of quality, I’m happy to say I found the festival a mostly stellar experience. I feel fortunate to have had the chance to discover so many unique small-scale and independent films — as well as one Nicolas Cage-starring Mad Max-esque Western (!).
Here are my 2021 Sundance rankings.
From my review for The Film Stage: Flee “ranks as one of the most uniquely memorable animated films of the last decade. It is remarkably successful as a study of the refugee experience, as a coming-of-age drama set against a backdrop of fear and danger, and as a tribute to one individual’s ability to survive and even flourish. More than deserving of its selection as Grand Jury Prize winner in Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Competition, Flee is an extraordinary achievement. ”
The Sparks Brothers: A-
Before watching Edgar Wright’s documentary about the band Sparks, I was aware of the Mael brothers, but only by appearance. This hugely entertaining career study made me appreciate the band’s music in a major way. It is the type of film you may want to watch again seconds after it ends. Yes, it’s that strong. (Cue up “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” right now.)
Rebecca Hall’s feature directorial debut, an adaptation of the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, is a fascinating and moving study of identity and race. The performances of Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are revelatory, and Hall excels at crafting moments that are subtle but hard-hitting.
The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet: A-
This offbeat, black-and-white Argentinian drama snuck up on me. It’s a bit coming-of-age drama, a tad satire, a pinch political. In final analysis, The Dog is altogether beautiful, strange, and unforgettable.
Summer of Soul (... Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised): A-
Roots drummer Questlove’s directorial debut is a joyous documentary featuring footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Considered lost for years, this archival footage is jaw-dropping. There won’t be a better music doc released in 2021.
The Most Beautiful Boy in the World: A-
A documentary about Björn Andrésen, the iconic young star of Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice, Boy seems to have hit me harder than some Sundance attendees. To me, Andrésen’s tale is wildly compelling, and this look at his sudden thrust into teenage fame and descent into a difficult and sad adulthood was extremely moving.
From my review for The Film Stage: “It is hard to think of a recent horror film in which the main character is tasked with a job as original and ingenious as Enid Baines, the protagonist of Prano Bailey-Bond’s riveting Censor. She is, yes, the titular censor. It is 1980s England, the time of ‘video nasties’ that drew parental consternation and tabloid outrage. These were the low-budget, ultra-violent VHS cassettes that earned their own category in the collective consciousness. Not all were UK productions. In Censor, however, the nasties are homegrown, in more ways than one.”
On the Count of Three: B+
Comedian Jerrod Carmichael stars in and directs one of the festival’s most pleasant surprises, a sharp, funny, somber buddy film featuring another great performance from Christopher Abbott. Annapurna picked this one up, and I expect it will draw some well-deserved attention upon release.
Judas and the Black Messiah: B+
It has been fascinating to read some of the mixed reviews that have accompanied Shaka King’s film about the Black Panther Party and its chairman, Fred Hampton. Some great points have been made, especially this from Angelica Jade Bastién, but I found the film powerful and involving. Daniel Kaluuya is riveting as Hampton.
In the Same Breath: B+
One Child Nation director Nanfu Wang’s documentary is a first-hand account of the early days of COVID-19 in China. While it does not quite have the impact of 76 Days, this is a profound and unmissable film. It will air soon on HBO.
An involving documentary about Texas teenagers, Cusp is breathtakingly intimate. Let’s hope for a follow-up centered around these same teens in a few years.
Perhaps the most controversial film of Sundance 2021, Pleasure is an explicit drama set in the L.A. porn scene. There has been some cogent analysis of Ninja Thyberg's debut feature (especially Orla Smith’s review for Seventh Row), and reading these has definitely impacted my opinion of the film. It is hard to watch but unquestionably important, and star Sofia Kappel gives a simply stunning performance.
Prisoners of the Ghostland: B
Sion Sono’s ultra-violent, dystopian Western starring Nicolas Cage hit me just right. Wild, adrenalized, and often very funny, Prisoners is one of Cage’s finest (and strangest) action films. It would be a blast to see it in a packed cinema.
Misha and the Wolves: B
From my review for The Film Stage of the twisty documentary Misha and the Wolves: “The story of Misha Defonseca checks a number of boxes on the documentary checklist. Serious surprises? Juicy legal proceedings? Jaw-dropping historical details? Check, check, check. And there is one more box to check: Stories that were too good to be true.”
Actor Fran Kranz wrote and directed this searing drama about the aftermath of a school shooting. It is undeniably powerful, but too stagey to have a lasting impact. Still, there is plenty to savor in this one, especially the performances from its main cast — Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, and Reed Birney.
There is no question that Sian Heder’s story of a teenager living with her deaf parents and brother was the big winner at Sundance. It’s a sweet, heartwarming, and very funny film — but others found it far more impressive than I did. Still, it’s a winner, and Apple audiences will adore it.
There has never been an animated film quite like Cryptozoo, and while I found it moderately satisfying, it drew some raves at Sundance. Director Dash Shaw’s world of fantastic creatures is dark, violent, and utterly unique.
While the script for Clint Bentley’s likable film about an aging jockey often feels rote, there is no denying the award-worthy performance from Collins. He is simply unforgettable.
All Light Everywhere: B
This documentary exploring shared histories — centered around police body cameras — was the festival’s most mentally challenging entry. It will likely benefit from a second viewing.
We’re All Going to the World’s Fair: B
One of the negatives of a virtual film festival — or in-person, really — is that the sheer number of entries means one does not always focus properly. I wish I’d spent more time pondering this bold study of online role-playing and loneliness; I look forward to seeing World’s Fair again one day, and expect that when I do, it will rise even more in my mind. Even so, it is a film I would certainly recommend.
The World to Come: B-
World boasts two powerhouse performances, from Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby, and has a strong premise. Ultimately, however, the drama feels a bit underwhelming. It is certainly worth a watch for Waterston and Kirby.
One for the Road: C+
This Wong-kar Wai production looks positively wonderful and has some nice moments, but overall it’s a disappointment. A ho-hum road movie set in New York City and Thailand, Road may play better outside of the festival setting.
Robin Wright stars in and directs this tale of a woman who decides to leave society and move into a cabin in the woods. She gives a fine performance and shows some real promise as a filmmaker, but the premise simply never feels fresh.
Ambitious, visually enticing, and a bit dull, Karen Cinorre’s unique debut feels like it would’ve made a fantastic short. As a feature-length film, this fantasy drama felt lacking.
Of all the films I saw at Sundance, Hive might be the most forgettable. That’s a shame, since this well-intentioned drama about a woman in Kosovo who starts a small business is based on the true story of a very admirable individual.
A Glitch in the Matrix: C
Room 237 director Rodney Ascher’s latest documentary explores a mind-bending topic: simulation theory. Yet it never coalesces into anything memorable. I was never bored, but never felt very engaged, either.
The Blazing World: C-
Despite some memorable visuals, Carlson Young’s horror film saddles a nice cast — Udo Kier, Dermot Mulroney, Vinessa Shaw — with a substandard story. Still, director/star Young shows some promise.
In the Earth: D+
From my review for The Film Stage: “Creating a new film is not the worst way to spend some forced COVID-19 downtime. It is, however, no excuse for making one as tiresome and disappointing as In the Earth. There are no new insights into pandemic mania, and despite strong performances from four well-cast actors, some sharp humor, and a few go-for-broke moments that engage, the majority of director Ben Wheatley’s horror film is an utter slog.”